Cancer Genetic Testing Should Be Performed in the Health Care Setting

by Lisa Schlager

There is a flood of information available about genetic tests for cancer risk in the media, and even at community events, such as health fairs and senior centers. If these promotions have caught your attention and you are considering testing, there is important information that you should know first.

Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE) is a national nonprofit organization that provides resources to help people make informed decisions about genetic testing for cancer risk. National standard-of-care guidelines recommend genetic counseling with a qualified expert before and after genetic testing. FORCE agrees that talking to a health care provider with expertise in cancer genetics pre- and post-genetic testing is important. This helps assure that:

  • The right test is performed (there are many available) at a reliable, high-quality lab.
  • Your results are interpreted correctly.
  • You receive accurate information about what the results mean and your medical options.

When genetic testing for cancer risk is conducted outside of a health care setting—as described below—the likelihood of misinformation is high, which could lead to harm.

Tests Sold in Non-Health Care Settings

Members of our community have reported sales representatives aggressively promoting genetic tests directly to consumers at health fairs, senior living facilities, on Facebook, and in other non-medical settings. These sales representatives have been evasive about the actual lab performing the testing and have provided misleading information, making false promises of “free” genetic testing to people who don’t qualify and billing insurance companies or Medicare for tests which may not be medically necessary.

BRCA Testing Through 23andMe

In March 2018, the FDA approved marketing of 23andMe’s test for the three BRCA mutations most commonly found in people of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry. Over 6,000 different mutations—in BRCA1, BRCA2 and other genes—are associated with an increased risk of cancer. The 23andMe BRCA test only looks for three of these many mutations (two in BRCA1 and one in BRCA2). This extremely limited test may provide people with a misleading understanding of their cancer risk. (in 2018, FORCE released a public statement to educate people about the limitations and drawbacks of this test.)

The FDA label warns people not to use the 23andMe BRCA test results to make medical decisions, and advises individuals to have a confirmatory test with a clinically certified lab to assure accuracy of the results. The agency also emphasizes “it is important for patients to consult their health care professional who can help them understand…their individual cancer risk.”

Using Ancestry Testing Data to Calculate Cancer Risk

Many companies (Ancestry, MyHeritage, 23andMe, etc.) offer genetic testing to help people locate relatives or learn more about their ethnicity. These tests are intended for recreational purposes and not meant to guide medical decision-making. Some third-party online programs (Promethease or Livewello, for example) allow people to submit their ancestry test results to discover additional information about their risk for cancer and other diseases. Ancestry tests, however, often do not produce comprehensive, high-quality DNA data.

FORCE has received numerous reports of people receiving incorrect information about their cancer risk after running DNA results through a third-party tool. A study published in 2018 revealed a high number of false positives in this type of information; as a result, people incorrectly thought they had a genetic mutation that increased their risk for cancer, which they do not have.

Further, it is impossible to know how many people receive false negative results, leading them to believe that they do not have a predisposition to a disease such as cancer when, in fact, they do have a mutation that increases their risk.

Genetic Testing is Regulated

You have a right to know the name of the lab performing your genetic testing. Beware of
representatives selling genetic tests for unnamed labs. Genetic tests are currently regulated by the FDA and CLIA. When ordering lab work such as a genetic test, health care providers typically order them through a trusted, CLIA-certified lab, which is regularly evaluated for quality assurance. The FDA aims to ensure that test marketing materials and claims are accurate, and that they address the information needs of the approved audience—health care providers or the public. If you have concerns or a complaint about a laboratory, you or your health care provider can file a complaint with CLIA and/or the FDA.

Regulating the Next Generation of Genetic Tests

Gene sequencing – also known as genetic testing – is the process scientists use to analyze DNA in search of mutations and variations in an effort to discover more about the connection between genes and traits, health and disease. Since the discovery of BRCA 1 in 1994, the sequencing of genes to find mutations has held importance for people with cancer in their family. With advances in biomedical technology, scientists have developed ways to process thousand of genes at the same time (in parallel) and at lower cost than earlier sequencing methods. These next-generation – or “next-gen” – sequencing (NGS) methods have brought opportunities and challenges to the field of genetics. NGS has allowed the development of panel tests that can look for mutations in many genes, including newly identified genes that might increase cancer risk. One of the challenges involves developing regulations to ensure that the resulting information is of maximum benefit to consumers. Recently, the FDA conducted a forum seeking public input about how these tests might be regulated. FORCE attended and testified on this topic.

Benefits and Challenges of NGS: Genetic tests for cancer-causing gene mutations allow people to better understand their risk for cancer, and take appropriate proactive steps against the disease. The test for BRCA mutations was the first commercially available test to help people make informed decisions about cancer prevention. Now, 20 years later, research indicates that knowing one’s BRCA status and taking risk-reducing steps can help people with mutations live longer. Experts use this information to help people make informed health care decisions to manage their cancer risk. But genetics is not an exact science, and even after two decades of research, and there are still health outcomes associated with living with a BRCA mutation that remain unknown.

We know even less about many of the genes included in NGS panel tests. These panel tests are being offered to consumers to help them assess personal cancer risk, but not nearly enough research has been conducted to identify specific risks and outcomes associated with mutations in some genes in these panels, and even less research is available concerning the best ways to manage cancer risk in individuals who have mutations in these genes.

Oversight of Laboratories That Conduct Diagnostic Tests: The federal government has regulatory standards for clinical laboratories to assure the quality of the labs and the tests they perform. But, these government agencies do not regulate other aspects of genetic testing such as:

  • Whether the tests have clinical utility
    Genetic tests for cancer risk are most useful if results can guide decision-making and most people assume that a test that is commercially available must have value for decision-making. But not all gene changes included in some NGS panel tests have been consistently linked to increased cancer risk. Some gene mutations increase risk, but not enough to change recommendations for risk management. Some genes are not associated with a specific cancer syndrome but still may increase an individual’s risk of some cancers. Currently tests that are run at certified laboratories are not required to meet any standard for clinical usefulness.
  • How the labs interpret and report variant results
    Panel testing returns a high incidence of genes that show a variant of uncertain significance (VUS) – a genetic variation for which the affect on risk of developing cancer is not completely understood. Such results make it exceedingly difficult for experts to advise patients about effective risk-management strategies and to identify family members who should consider genetic testing. Incorrect interpretation of VUS results in BRCA has led to adverse events in some patients, and with the growth of next-gen sequencing, in which VUS rates for some genes may exceed 50%, the incidence of adverse events seems likely to increase.
  • How the laboratories market these tests to doctors and consumers
    People are making medical decisions today based on panel test results, sometimes in the absence of evidence. Therefore, the information that labs provide about these tests, and how they market them to doctors and consumers are significant matters. FORCE was one of the first advocacy organizations to support government oversight of genetic test marketing. In 2009, we provided testimony to the Secretary of Health’s Advisory Committee on this topic, and based on that testimony, the FDA implemented a mechanism for health care providers to report adverse events stemming from laboratory tests.

The full potential of predictive testing can be realized only if patients receive credible and current information that helps them make fully informed decisions. Toward that end, FORCE recently testified that regulatory oversight of genetic testing laboratories ensures that:

  • Patients have access to trained genetics experts who are fully independent of testing labs and can provide them with standard-of-care genetic counseling for all the hereditary syndromes for which they may be at risk – both before and after genetic testing.
  • Individuals performing genetic counseling and interpreting test results meet minimum certification and continuing education requirements.
  • Genetic counselors receive appropriate recognition as health care practitioners by all payers, including Medicare.
  • Patients at increased risk for cancer can access services proven to reduce risk and improve survival or health outcomes—including breast MRI and prophylactic oophorectomy.
  • Resources are allocated to coordinate policies between the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), payers, and other agencies.
  • The legal provisions of Genetic Information and Non-discrimination Act (GINA) and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) are vigilantly enforced, and expanded protections for life, disability and long-term care insurance are considered.
  • A process for reporting adverse events associated with NGS – including misinterpretation of test results – is in place and accessible to patients.
  • All laboratories contribute variant data to the publicly accessible database known as ClinVar, and quality control and oversight procedures are created for this public archive that collects information about genomic variation and its relationship to human health.

We will continue to be involved in this dialogue with the regulatory agencies to assure that the best overall health outcomes of consumers remains a priority, and will continue to update you as this topic evolves.

In the meantime FORCE is a resource for all people and families affected by or at increased risk for hereditary breast, ovarian, and related cancers. We are actively building our ABOUT Network Research Registry to study long-term health outcomes for people affected by HBOC and help improve guidelines for medical decision-making.Our registry and our FORCE programs help people who have tested positive for mutations in BRCA, PALB2, PTEN, and other genes linked to cancer, people who have a family history of cancer, those who received inconclusive test results, and those who have not had genetic testing but are concerned about their cancer risk.

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Spreading HBOC Advocacy to Japan

Last month I had the honor of giving two talks at a conference organized by the Japanese HBOC Consortium in Tokyo: one for patients and the other for health care providers. Most people in Japan have little input into their health care decisions and do not question their doctors’ recommendations. The conference organizers hoped that my talk might inspire participants to organize an advocacy organization in Japan similar to FORCE to unite toward improving the situation for people with HBOC.

Japanese HBOC Patient Symposium Panel

Panelists from the HBOC Patient-Focused Symposium: (from left to right) Stacy Lewis, YSC; Naomi Sakurai, cancer advocate; Sue Friedman; Chieko Tamura, CGC, genetic counselor; Dr. Shozo Ohsumi, medical oncologist; Dr. Yamauchi, breast surgeon

 

I was joined by friend and colleague, Stacy Lewis, Chief Program Officer at Young Survival Coalition, who was also invited to speak about the important work that YSC is doing for young women with breast cancer. It was an incredible eye-opening experience that helped me appreciate how far we have come in research, clinical care, and resources for the HBOC community in the United States in last 16 years since FORCE was founded.

My talk for the patient community focused on four areas:

  1. Why I became an advocate
    I spoke about my personal health care experiences that led me to take action and start an organization to unite the HBOC community and improve the situation for others: misinformation I received from my health care team, the lack of awareness and support around HBOC, and the absence of research outcomes back in 1999 when I was making my health care decisions. I encouraged the lay audience to learn as much as they could about their health care options and speak out to assure that they are receiving the best care for themselves.
  2. The creation and trajectory of FORCE
    I explained the path from self-advocacy to advocating for others. By publicly sharing my story and seeking other like-minded people, we were able to organize the U.S. HBOC community into a cohesive unit. I shared the growth of FORCE from a small single-staffed nonprofit to a team of 11 employees and over 150 volunteers and the leader in providing programs and resources for the HBOC community. I spoke about the importance of determining touchpoints where we could affect positive change and influence policy, guidelines, and laws to improve the situation for previvors and survivors. I encouraged the audience to explore the ways that they could influence policy and access to care in Japan.
  3. What FORCE is doing in the HBOC world
    I provided highlights on FORCE’s work and programs in 4 key areas: education, support, research, and advocacy.

    • Education is critical for people to make informed decisions. I outlined FORCE’s education programs, including our website, publications, webinars, conference, and our new XRAYS program.
    • FORCE support programs assure that no one faces hereditary cancer alone. Our support programs include our toll-free helpline, our in-person outreach meetings, our message boards, and our new Peer Navigator Program, which will launch this year.
    • HBOC research is the path to better treatment, detection, and prevention options. I discussed the ABOUT Network, the first research registry organized and governed by and for the HBOC community. The audience was interested in the concept of patients setting research priorities and helping to design research studies. I also spoke about how FORCE matches patients to HBOC-specific research through our Research Search Tool and our Featured Research Page.
    • I shared FORCE’s advocacy work, including our efforts to help pass the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). I described FORCE’s input and testimony regarding national guidelines, gene patenting and direct-to-consumer marketing of genetic testing. I introduced our FRAT program, which trains consumers to weigh in on research and regulatory processes on behalf of our community.
  4. “Take home messages”  
    • One person can make a difference
    • Many people united and working together can make an even bigger difference.
    • It helps to have outspoken champions for the cause. I encouraged the audience to find people in government or the media who had been impacted by hereditary cancer.
    • HBOC research advances and resources developed in one country provide global benefits. There need for HBOC-focused advocates is worldwide; I challenged the audience to look within to see if any of them might carry the advocate torch in Japan.
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I had the opportunity to meet survivors, previvors, and providers who expressed gratitude for the work FORCE is doing.

I encouraged providers who specialize in cancer and genetics to work together with advocates to help them create evidence-based and balanced education materials and programs. I spoke about the importance of educating patients to participate in their health care decisions, and introduced the term “shared decision-making”—an important concept in the US.—meaning that medical decisions are part of a partnership between patients and health care providers. I provided examples from the ABOUT Network, our clinical trials matching and research recruitment efforts, and our FRAT Training program to emphasize why consumers should be invited to participate in and help drive the national HBOC research agenda. At a reception held after the symposium, I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Japanese survivors and previvors who expressed gratitude for the work FORCE is doing.

 

Some presentations were translated into English, giving me further understanding of the situation in Japan. The Japanese speakers spoke frequently about how HBOC support and information was better in the United States, and how their goal was to improve the situation in Japan. It was validating to see the term “previvor” used frequently in the presentations – highlighting their interest in incorporating genetic testing and preventive services into the Japanese health care system. I was struck by how much they strive for many things we take for granted. For example, in Japan:

 

  • access to BRCA genetic testing is minimal. Only about 100 patients a year receive genetic testing for which people must pay out-of-pocket.
  • high-risk women have very little access to preventive services such as MRI and prophylactic surgery.
  • no laws protect high-risk people from insurance discrimination, and fear of such discrimination is prevalent.
  • although open clinical trials for PARP inhibitors are recruiting in Japan, the drugs are not approved or available. In contrast, the FDA recently approved Lynparza (olaparib) to treat BRCA-associated ovarian cancer in the U.S.

 

As an advocate, I’m accustomed to pointing out systemic issues needing improvement. I have blogged about these topics in the past, including recommendations to expand the United States Preventive Services Task Force guidelines on genetic testing for cancer to include cancer survivors; men, Lynch and other cancer syndromes, and risk-management options such as MRI and risk-reducing surgery to assure coverage by insurance companies, the negative impact of gene patents, and the need for: more HBOC research, implementation of risk-based screening, and better risk-management options. Uptake of genetic services in the U.S. for people who meet guidelines is still very low, and great disparities in access to care still exist. But listening to the situation faced by our Japanese peers has helped me appreciate the progress we have made in the 16 years since FORCE was founded and has motivated me to do what I can to improve the situation for the global HBOC community.

 

 

FDA Approval of Promising Targeted Therapy Likely Stalled Until More Research Studies are Completed

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 was a pivotal day for our community.

It began with promise and ended with disappointment. For the first time ever, a treatment targeted for BRCA-associated cancers was considered for approval by the FDA. Yesterday the FDA’s Oncologic Drug Advisory Committee (ODAC) held a hearing to consider FDA approval of the drug olaparib for BRCA-positive ovarian cancer.

FORCE has been following the development of these drugs for the last decade.

Since then, we have followed the research, educated people about these agents, generated excitement about the research focus on HBOC, and facilitated clinical trial enrollment. For the HBOC community and the almost 1 million people in the US that FORCE represents, these targeted therapies offered hope. Still, completion of PARP inhibitor studies has taken a long time and in the duration, many people who could not access PARP inhibitors and did not meet criteria for any clinical trial have died of hereditary cancers.

FORCE testified at the hearing on behalf of the HBOC community.

Lisa Schlager VP of Policy at FORCE testifies.

Lisa Schlager VP of Policy at FORCE testifies.

FORCE was there to represent our community at this important hearing, as we have always been in the past. When the community needed protection against genetic discrimination, FORCE successfully lobbied for the passage of GINA laws. When laboratories began aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing of genetic testing, FORCE was there testifying to the Secretary of Health against these practices. We were at the steps of the US Supreme Court fighting for freedom from gene patents, and Wednesday we stood up in front of the ODAC hearing and urged the FDA to approve olaparib to treat hereditary ovarian cancer. You can read our full testimony here.


During the hearing, ODAC voted against olaparib approval in favor of waiting for further research results.

The FDA and ODAC recommended waiting until the completion of further studies before approving the drug, a process which could take several more years. The FDA will issue a final ruling on this application in October, however it is expected that they will not reverse their position on waiting until further studies are completed before approving this drug.

A point of contention is the issue of progression-free survival vs. overall survival.

The concept of progression-free survival (PFS) refers to the period of time that a treatment causes the cancer to improve or remain stable without getting worse. Overall survival (OS) measures the specific length of time that a person with cancer survives after receiving treatment. Scientist use these terms to measure the success or efficacy of new cancer therapies. Traditionally, the FDA has used only overall survival when considering the approval of a new drug. Other outcomes such as improved quality of life, and progression free survival are not usually considered significant enough for the FDA to approve a drug. There has debate among researchers and advocacy groups about whether or not a drug should be approved if it doesn’t demonstrate OS benefits. For patients facing advanced disease, PFS may seem like an acceptable endpoint.

In the olaparib study there was a statistically significant benefit in progression-free survival for BRCA mutation carriers who received olaparib: 6.9 months longer than those on placebo. The time until next treatment was 9.4 months longer in BRCA mutation carriers who took olaparib compared to those who received a placebo. Olaparib showed a significant effect on time to subsequent therapy in BRCA-mutation carriers, with the median time to subsequent therapy of 15.6 months in patients receiving olaparib versus 6.2 months in the placebo group.  There was a trend towards improved overall survival for women who took olaparib, with 55% of patients in the placebo arm dying compared to 50%, with a reported hazard ratio of 0.73 but this did not reach statistical significance in part because of the small number of patients in the study.

FORCE believes olaparib should receive FDA approval now. 

FORCE strongly supports the immediate approval of olaparib as a maintenance drug for BRCA-positive ovarian cancer because we believe it will improve the lives of women fighting ovarian cancer today. We will continue to do everything in our power to urge the FDA to consider the needs of our community.

In the meantime, we will continue to encourage our community to participate in and match patients to the critical research that we hope will lead to FDA approval of PARP inhibitors.

However, given the small subpopulations of women eligible for these trials, and the long timeline for completion of these studies, we are very concerned that completion of larger trials could take too long. Looking at the data on progression-free survival and time to subsequent first therapy, olaparib gives BRCA mutation carriers with ovarian cancer more time without disease and more time where they can avoid chemotherapy, translating to months or years with improved quality of life.

FORCE urged the FDA to consider the unmet needs of the HBOC community. In our testimony we asked the FDA,

“How many more women will die or suffer the effects of advanced disease and chemotherapy while we are waiting for larger trials to be completed? Women fighting hereditary ovarian cancer do not have time to wait.”

Research requires people! FORCE connects people to HBOC research.

With the FDA leaning towards delaying approval until the completion of further studies, now more than ever our efforts to enroll patients into HBOC studies is critical! Please help us create a better future for people affected by hereditary cancers by:

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Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI): Research Done Differently

What is PCORI?

The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) is a new government-supported agency that approaches medical research with a focus on the patient to improve health outcomes. Aiming to answer medical questions that are most important to patients and collecting data from “real world settings,” this differs from traditional research, which typically occurs at large academic medical centers where scientists determine the research questions and priorities to be studied.

PCORI 101 is an easy-to-follow short video that outlines the institute’s research approach and goals.

Why was PCORI formed?

Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured into traditional research each year in the United States—research that is important to advance our knowledge of health and disease—but isn’t always focused on providing patients with the specific information they need to make medical decisions. PCORI was formed to change that. Like all research, PCORI-funded projects must be scientifically rigorous and conducted ethically. But PCORI’s patient-centered approach to resolving medical questions is unique, involving consumer input at every step:

  • formulating research questions
  • setting priorities
  • planning studies
  • collecting information
  • interpreting results
  • sharing findings

PCORI research focuses on answering four common patient questions:

  • Given my personal characteristics, conditions, and preferences, what should I expect will happen to me?
  • What are my options, and related potential benefits and harms?
  • What can I do to improve outcomes that are most important to me?
  • How can my health care providers help me make the best decisions about my health and healthcare?

How Can PCORI Research Help the HBOC Community?

Patient-Centered Outcomes Research (PCOR) is very important for the Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer (HBOC) community. Individuals with BRCA mutations or other risk factors must make many important and difficult medical decisions. In the last two decades research has discovered important information about hereditary cancer risk and outcomes, but our message boards and forums are still filled with lingering questions for which we have no definitive answers, including:

  • What is the ideal age to remove my ovaries/tubes?
  • Is removing my uterus along with my ovaries and tubes beneficial, and if so, how?
  • What medical outcomes might I face after undergoing surgical menopause?
  • Will my health and quality of life be improved or harmed by taking hormone replacement after surgical menopause?
  • Is increased surveillance likely to find a cancer early enough to avoid chemotherapy?
  • Are certain treatments better for people with hereditary cancers? Is it in my best interest to avoid certain treatments?

Answers to questions like these can help people facing HBOC make informed decisions about their health care based on their personal health goals and priorities.

Government agencies such as the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) have a strong influence on insurance coverage and patient access to preventive services. The USPSTF reviews traditional research evidence to set screening and prevention guidelines. It also considers Patient-Centered Outcomes Research information that includes people’s attitudes towards preventive medicine such as:

  • Does an increased chance of abnormal findings affect a person’s willingness to undergo more sensitive cancer screening tests such as MRI? Does the risk of increased biopsies outweigh the benefit of detecting cancer earlier and if so, for which patients?
  • Which prevention outcomes are most important to patients?
    • survival
    • avoiding chemotherapy or other debilitating treatment
    • quality of life
  • Are answers to these questions different for high-risk patients than average-risk patients?

Research on the HBOC community’s perspectives on medical services can guide agencies in setting policies that affect access to care.

How is FORCE Involved in Patient-Centered Outcomes Research?

Over the past 15 years, FORCE has organized and united the HBOC community to identify, highlight, and promote research on the health concerns and outcomes that matter to people affected by HBOC. As we have compiled the research that is known about these issues, we have also identified the limits of our knowledge. Through our forums, programs, and surveys we have collected public input on the concerns and information gaps that most impact access to care and medical decision-making. Through our collaborations and participation on task forces and guidelines panels we continue to advance research and promote policies that benefit our community.

Recently FORCE’s collaboration with researchers from the University of South Florida and the Michigan Department of Community Health received a funding award from PCORI that will enable a “patient-powered research network” called the American BRCA Outcomes and Utilization of Testing (ABOUT) Network. Our collaboration is one of 29 networks that were recently approved to participate in a new national resource through PCORI known as the National Patient-Centered Clinical Research Network (PCORnet). We were chosen primarily due to our commitment to gathering patient input and identifying important concerns, our work to unite the community, our dedication to sharing important research results back to the community, and our efforts to train and prepare community members who have no scientific background to provide input into research.

Over the next 18 months we will be engaging our members in the following ways:

  • recruiting members who are interested in completing advocacy training and participating in leadership roles to help us build the governance of the ABOUT Network.
  • soliciting community input to identify and prioritize important unanswered research questions
  • offering opportunities for people to enroll in the ABOUT Network to help accelerate Patient-Centered Outcomes Research
  • training people with no scientific background to participate in research advocacy through our FORCE Research Advocacy Training (FRAT) program. FRAT helps to prepare members of our community to become involved in all levels of research planning and implementation.

FORCE’s participation in the ABOUT Network will allow HBOC stakeholders a place at the table and an unprecedented voice in guiding PCOR research over the coming years. Stay tuned for more details soon.

Preventive Guidelines Discriminate Against Cancer Survivors

FORCE has created a change.org petition to ask the United States Preventive Services Task Force to change their guidelines to include cancer survivors. You can read more about the issue and the petition below.

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The United States Preventive Services Task Force (US

The panel wields considerable power over consumer access to preventive health care services—primary care clinicians and health systems follow its guidelines. And importantly, the guidelines are incorporated into the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), which states that health plans must provide benefits without imposing cost-sharing (i.e., without a deductible or co-pay) for services that have a rating from the task force of “A” or “B.”PSTF) is a government-supported independent panel of experts that reviews and develops recommendations on select preventive health services. In the panel’s own words: “The USPSTF is committed to improving the health of all Americans. To achieve this, the USPSTF assesses evidence on specific populations and makes specific evidence-based recommendations for specific populations.

The USPSTF has reviewed several, but not all preventive services available to keep us healthy, so some gaps are unavoidable. (Read a list of USPSTF-reviewed services here.)

The panel does have guidelines for risk assessment and BRCA testing, which are now being updated. Revisions have been improved based on feedback and suggestions from many groups and health care professionals; the proposed update supports genetic counseling and testing with a “Grade B” in women who have a family history consistent with a mutation, requiring insurance companies to cover these preventive services without a co-pay or deductible. But as we have previously reported, serious gaps remain, including omission of:

  • men
  • risk assessment and Lynch Syndrome testing
  • letter grade assignment for screening and prevention for high-risk women

We will continue to post about these gaps in policy that affect our community’s access to care. This blog post highlights one particular aspect of the USPSTF draft guidelines on risk assessment and BRCA testing: the discrimination against cancer survivors.

Regarding its draft guidelines, the USPSTF states: “These recommendations apply to women who have not received a diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer but who have family members with breast or ovarian cancer whose BRCA status is unknown. Women presenting to their primary care providers who have a relative with a known potentially harmful mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes should receive genetic counseling and consideration for testing.

FORCE response to the USPSTF draft guidelines

In October of this year FORCE sent a letter to the USPSTF which included four key points about this gap:

  • We pointed out that cancer survivors with a BRCA mutation are at high risk for an unrelated second primary cancer, and could benefit from preventive aspects of BRCA testing.
  • We requested that the task force review the strong research evidence supporting genetic risk assessment for preventive purposes in women who have been already been diagnosed with breast cancer and meet national guidelines.
  • We emphasized how omission of survivors from these guidelines will negatively impact their access to care and coverage for preventive services under the PPACA.
  • We requested that women with a cancer diagnosis be included in the definition of “population under consideration.”

USPSTF response to FORCE

The USPSTF responded to our letter with this statement, “Although the Task Force recognizes the importance of the further evaluation women who have the diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer, that assessment is part of disease management and is beyond the scope of this recommendation. The Task Force recognizes that genetic counseling and testing may be an important part of disease management for women who have been diagnosed. However, the Task Force’s mission is to determine the evidence-base for preventive services in the general population who have no signs or symptoms of disease.

I recognize that the USPSTF is focused on prevention only, and that any service that may come under the category of treatment is beyond their scope. And it is true that under some circumstances—particularly in women newly diagnosed with breast cancer—BRCA testing can affect treatment decisions, including the decision to have lumpectomy or unilateral mastectomy vs. bilateral mastectomy. However, the USPSTF response is missing a critical point: BRCA testing has preventive value beyond “disease management” and can help survivors prevent a new, completely unrelated second diagnosis of breast cancer. Experts still recommend genetic risk assessment for women whose personal and/or family medical history indicates a possible mutation even after they have completed their treatment for cancer and have no evidence of disease. These women meet the task force’s criteria of having no signs or symptoms of disease.

The USPSTF guidelines discriminate against cancer survivors

The USPSTF’s insistence to exclude survivors from these guidelines, despite research evidence to show the preventive value in testing people after cancer, amounts to discrimination against cancer survivors. The panel implies that once a person is diagnosed with cancer, all further health efforts fall under the category of treatment of the disease. By dismissing the preventive value of BRCA testing in this population they also dismiss the value of preventive services in cancer survivors in general, many of whom will go on to live long healthy lives if they are given access to appropriate preventive services.

My personal history is a perfect illustration. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, my health care providers failed to recognize that I had several red flags for a mutation. It wasn’t until after my unilateral mastectomy—when I read an article about BRCA testing—that I recognized I fit the guidelines for BRCA testing. I learned after my treatment that I had a BRCA 2 mutation; I was fortunate because a prophylactic mastectomy of my so-called healthy breast found early-stage cancer. During my BSO, abnormal cells were found in my abdominal wash, indicating that dangerous changes that could develop into cancer if left unaddressed were already underway. These surgeries were preventive in every sense of the word. The fact that I had already been diagnosed with breast cancer did not take away from the preventive benefit of BRCA testing for me. Now 15 years out from my preventive surgeries, I remain healthy and cancer-free. I am confident that the preventive steps I took have kept me from developing a second primary cancer.

Thousands of women like me who have completed treatment for cancer meet expert guidelines for risk assessment and BRCA testing, and also fit the USPSTF’s criteria of having “no signs or symptoms of disease.” Research evidence shows that genetic risk assessment and preventive action can lower their risk for a new primary cancer, detect it early, and lower their mortality. In many cases these women are the key to identifying a family mutation. As U.S. citizens, they are entitled to similar preventive services as people in the general population. Continued exclusion of this population discriminates against breast and ovarian cancer survivors and jeopardizes not just them, but also their healthy relatives.

The guidelines run counter to the spirit of the PPACA

As of January 2014—due to provisions in the PPACA – U.S. citizens with a pre-existing condition can no longer be denied or dropped from their health insurance plans. The stated goals of the PPACA are: “The most prevalent goal, however, and the one concept that is nearly universally accepted is the desire to improve the quality of care across the United States (U.S.) for all citizens until it meets the highest of standards.” It is ironic that at a time when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is being implemented to eliminate pre-existing condition exclusions by insurance companies, the USPSTF task force is in effect adding back pre-existing status, and therefore barriers to cancer survivors’ access to preventive care.

What you can do

After several letters to the USPSTF, we have decided to appeal to the task force once more, focusing on the issues with the most supportive research evidence. We ask that you read and sign on to our counter-response letter, which we plan to submit by December 12. (Read more about the issues here). We ask you to share this letter with any cancer survivors, previvors, health care providers, caregivers, and everyone you know and ask them to sign on to the letter as well. This issue and the USPSTF actions to assure access to preventive services for all citizens effects us all. We will request a written response from the USPSTF and will share it with our community. We will continue to post about the gaps in policy that affect our community’s access to care.

To sign on to the letter, send an email to suefriedman@facingourrisk.org and include your full name, city, and state.

Maximizing Access to BRCA Testing by Involving Genetics Experts

Note: The below is an updated version of a post in 2008 right after the documentary In the Family was released, and actress Christina Applegate announced she had a BRCA 1 mutation. Five years later, this post is more relevant than ever. 

As the dust clears since Angelina Jolie went public with her BRCA status, the impact of her revelation has been mixed. On the positive side, the increased awareness of HBOC has opened up a public dialogue on genetic counseling, testing, cancer prevention, and access to care and has encouraged people to educate themselves about these topics. More people are considering their family history of cancer, pursuing genetic counseling and testing, and learning their options to prevent or to detect cancer earlier. Following these steps will save lives. Unfortunately, people’s initial inquiries about testing are not always met with credible information. We know from experience that where people go for additional information, resources, and support matters for their outcomes. FORCE has documented cases where people received inaccurate information about genetic testing which led to negative health consequences.

Fortunately, many people are finding their way to the expert-reviewed information and resources from FORCE and are being referred to genetics professionals. Calls to our toll free helpline have increased in direct proportion to media reports about BRCA. One of the frequent requests we receive is about financial assistance for genetic testing. Many of these calls are from individuals who have a family history of cancer and health insurance, but their insurance has denied covering genetic testing.

Many of these insurance denials and high out-of-pocket costs related to testing occur because people have not first met with a qualified expert in cancer genetics. When you consider the $3,000+ cost for “full-sequencing” BRCA 1 and BRCA 2 testing, where the entire gene is evaluated, it’s easy to understand why genetic testing is beyond the means of many people. However, under certain circumstances, a less extensive test may be more appropriate and can lower the price of testing by thousands of dollars. In other cases the choice of which member of the family receives genetic testing first can also affect cost and insurance coverage and risk assessment for the entire family. Some of these insurance denials stem from an uninformed health care provider ordering the wrong test or not identifying the best first person in a family to receive testing.

The high cost of genetic testing for BRCA is due to the fact that only one company—Myriad Genetics—can perform the gene test in the United States. They were granted exclusive patents on the BRCA genes and consequently control everything about BRCA testing, including the price. Even as the cost of genetic technology has decreased, Myriad keeps raising the price of their BRCA test.

A specially trained genetics expert will first assess an individual’s family medical history, determine which test is most appropriate, and identify which family member should be tested first. Seeing a genetic counselor prior to genetic testing can make the difference between having a test denied or covered by insurance. In fact, for people who meet specific National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) standard-of-care guidelines, many insurance companies, will pay for both genetic counseling and testing. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act also outlines that people who meet certain guidelines qualify for genetic counseling and testing which must be covered by their insurance without copay or deductible. A team of genetics and cancer experts can be good advocates for insurance coverage of genetic testing.

When genetic testing proceeds without counseling there is a higher likelihood of inappropriate or costlier testing. Myriad is the only entity who stands to benefits from inappropriate BRCA testing. In 2009, FORCE presented testimony to the Secretary of Health’s Advisory Committee on Genetics outlining our concerns about the aggressive marketing that was leading to increased cost and harm to our community. These concerns still remain true.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit to invalidate Myriad’s patents. FORCE has filed an Amicus Brief in support of the ACLU’s case. The Supreme Court has heard the case and they are expected to rule by this summer. Until the cost of genetic testing goes down, genetic testing will remain out of reach for too many people, even for those who meet standard-of-care guidelines. On a national level, financial support is limited. People who meet certain criteria and have annual income below the poverty level may qualify for testing under Myriad Genetics Laboratories financial assistance program. For people whose insurance does not cover the full cost of testing, co-pay assistance is available through the Cancer Resource Foundation. Regionally, FORCE has been able to navigate many people who contact us for assistance to programs in their area but there are still many gaps in access to care.

For the uninsured or underinsured women who receive assistance for genetic counseling and testing, what then? Experts recommend annual mammograms and MRI for BRCA-positive women ideally beginning at age 25. Patient Services Incorporated (PSI) has a program funded by Right Action for Women which covers the cost for MRI for eligible young high-risk women. The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, provides free mammograms for women over 40. Gaps still remain for financial assistance for breast MRI for high-risk women over age 40 and for mammograms for women younger than age 40. Financial resources for women who choose to undergo  prophylactic surgery is even more limited. Like most disparity issues in health care, the needs are many and existing resources are few.

With the media spotlight on hereditary cancer, and demand for BRCA testing increasing, FORCE has continued to emphasize the importance of referral to appropriate experts for genetic counseling before and after genetic testing. Until the disparity and cost of testing issues are resolved, given that genetic testing is expensive, financial resources are limited, and not everyone has equal access to care, the best way to maximize the number of appropriate tests, is to include genetic counseling with experts prior to the ordering of genetic tests.

Proposed Guidelines on BRCA Testing Leave Many Gaps

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) is a government-supported independent panel of experts that reviews and develops recommendations on select preventive health services. The panel assigns letter grades to preventive services based on their opinion of strength of the research evidence. The task force just released a draft of their guidelines on genetic counseling and testing for BRCA. Despite some strengths of the updated guidelines; important gaps remain that will directly affect patient access to genetic counseling, genetic testing, and preventive services.

Significance of These Guidelines
The USPSTF published guidelines are important to consumers for two main reasons:

  1. Primary care clinicians and health systems follow these guidelines. The content of the guidelines can affect what information doctors convey to patients about disease risk, screening, and prevention.
  2. The panel’s guidelines must be implemented based on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), which states that health plans must provide benefits without imposing cost-sharing (i.e., without a deductible or co-pay) for services that have a rating from the task force of “A” or “B.” 

USPSTF Guidelines on BRCA Testing
In 2005, the USPSTF first issued guidelines for primary care providers on “Genetic Risk Assessment and BRCA Mutation Testing for Breast and Ovarian Cancer Susceptibility.” The task force assigned a grade “B” (recommended health care providers offer this to patients) to genetic counseling and testing for women with a family history suggestive of a possible BRCA mutation. It issued a grade “D” (recommended health care providers discourage patients from using these services) to genetic testing in women without a family history suggestive of a mutation. In 2005 this guidance was greatly needed, as many primary care providers were either unaware of BRCA testing or had received most of their information from Myriad Genetics, the laboratory that sells the test. At the time, the USPSTF did not request public or expert commentary on their guidelines.

In 2011, the USPSTF announced its plan to update these guidelines, and asked for public commentary. FORCE (and other health care experts) submitted written recommendations to the USPSTF on its plan to review the research on BRCA genetic counseling and testing and update the guidelines. Despite receiving extensive suggestions for strengthening and improving the guidelines, last month the USPSTF released new draft guidelines that essentially restate the 2005 guidelines and grades with few changes. In general, I agree with the letter grades that were assigned, but I’m disappointed that this opportunity for guideline revision was not used to address critical gaps. With the recent passage of the PPACA—which references USPSTF guidelines to determine insurance coverage of some preventive services—it is more important than ever that the USPSTF guidelines on genetic counseling and testing are practical, comprehensive and evidence-based. Gaps in the guidelines will now directly affect patient access to genetic counseling, testing, and preventive services as outlined by this new legislation.

An overview of our comments is available on our advocacy page, and our full written comments as submitted to the USPSTF can be viewed here.

FORCE Concerns with the Draft Guidelines

  • The patient population covered by the guidelines is too narrow. Important groups are not specifically included in the USPSTF guideline “B” letter grade:
    • Women who have been diagnosed with cancer
    • Women with a known BRCA mutation in the family
    • Women with a family history of cancers other than breast or ovarian cancer that puts them at high risk for inherited cancer
    • Men
  • No letter grade is assigned to any risk-management options.
    The task force mentions risk-management interventions but does not assign letter grades to specific prevention and screening options. With no letter grade assigned, these preventive services are not guaranteed coverage under the PPACA, nor will health plans be directed to provide the services without out-of-pocket costs to patients.
  • The current guidelines take a single-syndrome approach to family history and genetics. The task force states: “…primary care providers should ask about specific types of cancer, which family members were affected, and the age and sex of affected family members…For women who have positive family histories of breast or ovarian cancer, primary care providers may use one of several brief familial risk stratification tools to determine the need for in-depth genetic counseling.”

Encouraging doctors to take a patient’s family history of breast and ovarian cancer is a positive step. However, the guidelines only provide instructions for referring women with a positive family history of these two cancers. Other cancers (such as pancreatic cancer) can be associated with a BRCA mutation in a family. Further, a family history of different cancers may indicate other hereditary syndromes associated with different mutations than BRCA. Lynch Syndrome, for example, is associated with a family history of ovarian, colon, and/or endometrial cancers and Cowden Syndrome is associated with breast, thyroid, and uterine cancers.

FORCE Recommendations to the USPSTF
FORCE’s submitted recommendations for addressing these gaps, focusing on issues that we felt had the most supportive research evidence:

  • Extend the evaluation and letter grade to women with a known mutation in the family
  • Extend the evaluation and letter grade to women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer and who meet criteria based on personal and family history of cancer 
  • Assign a letter grade to the following risk-management options
    • Breast MRI 
    • Risk-reducing  bilateral mastectomy
    • Risk-reducing bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy
    • Oral contraceptives
  • Review the evidence and develop one set of integrated practice guidelines for collecting family history and referral of appropriate individuals for genetic counseling, testing, and related preventive services. These guidelines should include Lynch Syndrome and other relevant hereditary cancer syndromes.

Guidelines Are Important, But A New Approach Is Needed
Focusing public health efforts on disease preventive is lifesaving. Applying risk assessment allows us to better tailor prevention and screening for those in the highest risk categories; this approach is both lifesaving and cost saving. Developing expert guidelines based on  the strength of research on preventive care is worthwhile. But we must do a better job in guiding primary care doctors specifically on topics of genetics, risk assessment, screening, and prevention of hereditary disease in order to save more lives.

The USPSTF consists primarily of public health experts rather than clinical experts in disease and genetics. This may not be the best approach for reviewing topics in the realm of personalized medicine and genetics. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Office of Public Health Genomics organizes a panel – the Evaluation of Genomic Applications in Practice and Prevention (EGAPP) Working Group – which includes both public health experts and clinicians. EGAPP provides an example of a more inclusive panel for reviewing the application of genetics to public health.

The narrow approach of reviewing research for only one hereditary cancer syndrome and only specific portions of the community while ignoring other hereditary syndromes and populations at risk does not serve the public well. Using this approach, the USPSTF is missing the opportunity to help practitioners identify people at very high risk for many preventable diseases with a goal of saving lives. Health care professionals and the public would be better served by having a single set of evidence-based guidelines that address the collection and evaluation of personal and family medical history to identify people who would benefit from genetic counseling and testing for many hereditary diseases. These guidelines should include all hereditary disease syndromes and conditions that have associated genetics tests with clinical utility.

FORCE plans to work with policy-makers and other advocacy groups to outline and propose a new approach to systematic review of preventive services such as collection of family history, genetic counseling, genetic testing, and screening and prevention options. Our goal will be to address important issues including:

  • Determining which experts should be included on preventive services task force panels
  • Prioritizing the diseases and preventive services to be evaluated
  • Integrating the guidelines for different diseases and services into a single set of easy-to-follow recommendations on risk-assessment, screening, and prevention
  • Expanding coverage under the PPACA, Medicare, and Medicaid for preventive services for more diseases, populations, and medical interventions

The new USPSTF draft guidelines highlight gaps in education resources, research and access to care. There is a continued need for FORCE to take action and unite our community to advocate for more HBOC-specific research and more access to credible information, genetic counseling and testing, and risk-management options. At the same time, FORCE will be working with groups representing other hereditary diseases to address the global issue of how to better incorporate personalized medicine and genomics into public health. Stay tuned for updates.

Gene Discovery, Patents, and the Community

Recently a dear friend sent me a link to an article in the February 1996 issue of Nature Medicine. The article by journalist Adam Marcus covered a media event and panel of women’s rights advocates expressing concern about Myriad’s impending patenting of the BRCA1 gene. Panelists declared unregulated genetic testing to be the coming century’s foremost threat to individual liberty. Incredibly, 17 years after the publication of Adam Marcus’ article, the debate is still ongoing—the issue of gene patenting and the consequences of lacking regulation regarding gene patents are still present and as relevant as they were then.

Admittedly, I missed this article the first time around. In 1996, I was more likely to be reading the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association than a human medical journal. With a toddler, a budding veterinary career, and no significant family history of breast cancer, my focus was not on hereditary cancer. In fact, genetic testing and gene patents were furthest from my mind. But my diagnosis with breast cancer eight months later and subsequent revelation that I have a BRCA2 mutation changed that.

When I was first tested for a BRCA mutation in 1998, I was fortunate; my testing costs were covered by my health insurance. I was very grateful to have access to the test; my gratitude extended to the laboratory that made the test available to me. Although I was initially tested without genetic counseling, I went to MD Anderson Cancer Center for a second opinion and eventually found my way to a genetics expert and had access to up-to-date and credible information from experts. It wasn’t until I became immersed in my work with FORCE that I became aware of deeper issues that were the consequence of Myriad holding patents on the BRCA genes.

In 2009, Joanna Rudnick released her documentary In the Family, which shined a spotlight on Myriad’s gene patents and some of these consequences. The documentary included an eye-opening interview with Dr. Mark Skolnick, founder of Myriad Genetics. Joanna questions how a gene—a product of nature—can be patented, saying “It’s like patenting your thumb.” Skolnick compares Myriad’s patents on the BRCA genes to patents for ipods, telephones, and computers, and cavalierly asserts “there’s no controversial patent. It’s all very easy to understand if you take the time.”

In the film, Joanna brilliantly follows the Myriad interview with an interview of Dr. Mary-Claire King, who was credited with identifying the location of the BRCA gene when she was a researcher at University of California at Berkeley. Dr. King has dedicated herself to the research that proved the existence of hereditary breast cancer gene mutations. Her research laid groundwork that sent many laboratories racing to be the first to isolate and clone the gene for genetic testing.

In Rudnick’s film, Dr. Skolnick says, “I think the single greatest inventive thing I did was to create Myriad. We did it to win the race…and we won.” Asked point-blank why the cost of the test is increasing, Dr. Skolnick replies, “that’s a good question, and I think there’s a point at which we have to start looking at decreasing the cost of the test.” Yet, four years after the documentary was released, the cost of testing has gone up—BRCA testing is more expensive, even though the technology for sequencing DNA has become less expensive.

The gist of Dr. King’s interview starkly contrasts with Dr. Skolnick’s statements. Dr. King speaks about genes for which she holds patents, saying, “The critical thing about the patents we hold is that none of them are exclusively licensed. So they are completely open for anyone to use for research purposes and any company that wishes to license them can license them for a trivial amount of money.” King mentions that her last royalty check amounted to $2.73. In contrast, the February 6 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune reports Myriad’s earnings: “Myriad projects full-year 2013 revenue will fall between $575 million and $585 million. That would be a 16 percent to 18 percent increase over fiscal 2012.” The contrast is apparent and appalling.

Over the years, FORCE has appealed to government agencies and spoken to the health care community and the public regarding Myriad’s exclusive patent, and explained how the corporation’s marketing strategies and policies have increased the burden on the hereditary cancer community that we serve. In 2008 and again in 2009 we testified to the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics Health and Society, expressing our concerns with direct-to-consumer marketing of genetic tests, and specifically Myriad’s marketing practices, which we feel encourages BRCA testing without first receiving genetic counseling from qualified experts trained in cancer genetics. In our opinion, their aggressive marketing strategies have been harmful to members of our community.

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit challenging Myriad’s patents on the BRCA genes. On April 15, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on gene patenting. This hearing will represent the culmination of four years of the legal tug-of-war between Myriad Genetics and the plaintiffs, which included the ACLU and a long list of individual, advocacy, and health care professional groups. FORCE agrees with the ACLU that exclusive gene patents negatively affect access to care and research and we have filed an Amicus (Friend of the Court) brief on behalf of plaintiffs. You can read our testimony to the United States Patent and Trademark Office on the topic of how exclusive gene patenting impacts research and access to care. The Supreme Court oral arguments will be open to public participation.

For those who wish to learn more about Dr. King’s work, Decoding Annie Parker is a new  movie that follows the parallel lives of Dr. King and Annie Parker, a Canadian woman whose family was impacted by hereditary cancer. Based on a true story, the film raises the profile of Dr. King’s contribution to the discovery of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome and the BRCA1 gene mutation. It is sure to resonate with many in our community. FORCE is a proud charity partner of the movie, which stars Helen Hunt as Dr. King. A special screening will be held April 2 in New York City. FORCE will hold  screenings of the film in other cities. Stay tuned for updates.

Applying Personalized Medicine to Disease Screening and Prevention

Personalized medicine uses information about an individual’s genetic make-up to deliver the right screening, prevention, or treatment options at the right time to achieve the best medical outcome. Genetic counseling, risk assessment, and genetic testing to determine inherited predisposition for diseases are important and growing areas of personalized medicine that further this goal.

Critics have raised concerns that identifying and treating people who are at risk for disease necessarily leads to “over-medicalization” of health care and increases cost and the possibility of causing harm. Evaluating the risks and costs versus benefits of disease prevention and control, however, is complex and depends on the disease in question, available screening and risk-management options, individuals or populations who are most at risk, and their level of risk for the disease. Given our limited resources and focus on containing health care costs, we will move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach to health only when we are willing to carefully consider each of these variables, rather than discounting all risk assessment, screening and prevention as over-treatment.

Not all risk is the same
Risk changes over the course of a lifetime, depending on genetics, lifestyle and other factors. Preventive care and screening recommendations for people of average risk are based on studies of thousands of people in the general population—sometimes they are not adequate for people who have a higher risk for a particular disease. Personalized medicine allows us to identify people with higher-than-average risk and provide interventions that can improve their health outcomes. For example, the American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms beginning at age 40 for women with an average risk for breast cancer. But women with BRCA mutations, who face a higher lifetime risk for breast cancer at a younger age, and tumors that may develop faster and more aggressively, need more frequent and rigorous screening that begins at an earlier age and involves annual MRI surveillance.

Not all diseases are the same
Diseases develop and behave differently and have different impact, morbidity, and mortality, which must be considered when weighing the cost and risks compared to the value of screening and prevention. Impact of a disease includes the number of people affected and the consequences of diagnosis and treatment on survival and quality of life. Basal cell skin cancer and ovarian cancer illustrate these differences.

Roughly 2.8 million people in the United States are diagnosed with basal cell skin cancer yearly, compared to about 22,000 ovarian cancer diagnoses. Basal cell cancers can be detected through skin exams, and almost all cases are cured. With no reliable detection or screening, ovarian cancer is most often found late, when the five-year cure rate is less than 50%. Ovarian cancer patients require extensive surgery, chemotherapy, and sometimes radiation, often with profound negative effects on quality-of-life. Although more people are affected by basal cell cancer, more people die of ovarian cancer. Screening and prevention recommendations for a common, detectable, and treatable disease like basal cell cancer require different considerations than those for a less common cancer (like ovarian cancer) that cannot be detected early, carries a poor prognosis, and is accompanied by aggressive treatment. It makes sense to focus efforts and apply technology to identify those in the highest risk category for deadly diseases such as ovarian cancer and prevent them whenever possible.

Not all interventions have the same risks or benefits for everyone
We can predict risk for some diseases like Huntington’s, for which we have no effective or proven intervention. However, many diseases, such as breast cancer, have interventions that lower the risk for or improve the odds of detecting the disease at it’s earliest and most treatable stage. Each disease intervention option has unique risks, costs, and benefits that should be considered individually.

MRI is a sensitive tool that can detect breast cancers that are too small for a mammogram to find. But MRI screenings are expensive, and they often find suspicious but harmless breast changes, requiring a biopsy to assure that they are benign. For these reasons, experts don’t recommend screening breast MRI for women of average risk for breast cancer. Women at high risk have a greater likelihood of an abnormality being actual cancer, and that often tips the scales in favor of increased surveillance, even if that means a greater chance of needing a biopsy. Long-term research on high-risk women shows that MRI detects breast cancers at an earlier stage resulting in less extensive treatment.

Having a BRCA mutation raises the lifetime risk for ovarian cancer up to 50%, compared to 1.5% for women with average risk. Prophylactic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries and tubes) is the most effective way to reduce ovarian cancer risk, but like all surgery, the procedure has its own potential for risk and harms: complications from anesthesia, infection, and early menopause, which can be associated with long-term health and quality-of-life consequences. Surgery is also costly. On the other hand, research has shown that BSO improves survival in high-risk women. Given the costs, risks, and benefits of prophylactic surgery versus the consequences of an ovarian cancer diagnosis, this intervention offers more value to women at very high risk and less value to average risk women.

Research shows that prostate cancer screening using PSA increases detection of this cancer but may not improve survival for many men. PSA screening has risks and limitations including: many of the cancers found are not symptomatic and will not affect life-span or quality-of-life; PSA tests can yield many false-positive results leading to unnecessary biopsies; treatment of prostate cancer can lead to side effects in many patients. Given this, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) issued guidelines that recommended against PSA screening for men of average risk. However, recent research suggests that men with BRCA 2 mutations face a higher lifetime risk for more aggressive, younger-onset, prostate cancer than men in the general population. Applying personalized medicine to their guidelines, the USPSTF qualified that “This recommendation…does not consider PSA-based testing in men with known BRCA gene mutations who may be at increased risk for prostate cancer.” 

Not all information is clinically useful
Before BRCA mutations were identified, individuals with a strong family history of cancer had no way to know whether they had inherited a very high risk for cancer. Basing their risk on family history alone, these women sometimes pursued prophylactic surgery, even though their lifetime risk was no higher than the average woman’s. The availability of BRCA testing improves decision-making for high-risk women, giving them the opportunity to learn more about their personal risk and make evidence-based health care decisions.

The same advances that make BRCA genetic testing possible have also led to the development of other tests that may not be as useful. Genetic testing allows researchers to understand how diseases develop and design better options for screening, prevention and treatment. But not all genetic tests should be offered to the general public for decision-making purposes; particularly those that do not provide “actionable” information that people can use to improve their health or quality of life.

Informed decision-making
Given credible information, people are capable of weighing the costs, harms, and benefits of different medical interventions. Genetics experts can help to guide people through the maze of factors described in this blog to make personal informed decisions about their care.

BRCA is just the tip-of-the-personalized medicine iceberg. Genetic tests have been developed that can look at tumor cells to determine the best treatment or predict the likelihood of people having side-effects from a particular therapy.  Granted, personalized medicine is not an exact science, and we are not yet able to apply it to all people and all diseases. But it makes sense to use evidence-based interventions to save and improve the quality of as many lives as we can. As a society, we need to continue to invest in the research, translation, and application of personalized medicine, risk assessment, and genetic testing to determine the best candidates for the best interventions at the best time.